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JASON OF GROWING GARDENS TALKS EDUCATION & EMPOWERMENT THROUGH AGRICULTURE

Our #GrowInspired series features our innovative and creative garden partners. Whether they’re working with two acres or 200 square feet, we are constantly in awe of their hard work and kick-ass gardens. These are some of our favorite growers and gardeners who inspire us to get out and play in the dirt.

Jason Skipton, Executive Director at Growing Gardens, has a diverse background in agriculture and community garden education programs. He leads the dedicated team at Growing Gardens and is always looking for better ways to help the Portland community — especially low-income and communities of color. Growing Gardens has three distinct programs that they run to help educate and empower through agriculture. The Home Gardens Program provides resources and support for individuals & families to grow their own garden at home. The Youth Grow Program educates and empowers youth to make healthy food choices and serve as stewardesses in their communities. The Lettuce Grow Program works directly with incarcerated individuals in Oregon correctional facilities to cultivate new skills and build a healthier community on the inside.

As part of Thriving Design’s commitment to donate 1% of our revenue to nonprofits committed to combating food insecurity and environmental justice, Growing Gardens is one of our primary (and favorite) partners in this program. We want to highlight their work and encourage others to support them as well. Jason was kind enough to chat with us about the organization, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and how they pivoted during the pandemic to make sure they made the most impact with their help in feeding families. 

On The Home Gardens Project 

So our Home Gardens Program helps about three hundred families across the Portland metro area by getting gardens built in their backyards, side yards or patios and then providing support for three years. So nothing that we do in our programs would be considered a “drop-in” — We don’t just give them a packet of seeds and leave. We know from our 25 years experience that the program works because we provide support to people learning these skills for the first time. It takes several seasons for them to fully understand the purpose and so what’s really great is we’re not only building these gardens for people, we’re building community and community leaders through agriculture. 

Within this program, there’s a lot of really cool nuances that highlight the depth of community engagement. About six years ago we decentralized our office and started hiring program graduates who had completed the three years with us (after we installed a garden at their home). We started hiring these people as staff and then they started working to organize in their own neighborhoods. That was really transformational for the organization. We work with about 300 families, about half of which are Spanish speakers. So half of our team are bilingual Spanish-English speakers and are able to work with folks in the language that they want to communicate with. 

Pivoting The Home Garden Program To Help Families During The Pandemic 

When the pandemic hit, we really had to reconfigure and reimage all of our programs in a sense, and especially with the Home Gardens Program. In a normal, non-pandemic year, we would have anywhere between 500-600 volunteers come out and help build gardens throughout the season. When the pandemic hit, we all realized that just wasn’t possible. So we really had to sit down and figure out OK, how do we do this? Can we build gardens in people’s backyards? What does that system look like and how do we do it? 

I have huge respect for the team, in particular Antonio Rodriguez, our Home Programs Manager. The team basically said that it wasn’t an option to hold off on the program [during the pandemic]. We had to figure out another way to make it work because families had been waiting, at this point, since the fall and then the pandemic really hit in the spring of 2020 when we were set to build 40 gardens. March 2020 was really scary; people were losing their jobs and people were hoarding a lot of food items and we weren’t sure grocery stores were going to be stocked. We had to step up and build these gardens in the safest way possible. 

Antonio came up with the brilliant concept of using micro teams to install these gardens; whereas before we would have twenty volunteers building one garden, instead we had two people. So, throughout the month of April, they were doing 2-3 gardens per day every day of the week. And because of the hard work, dedication, energy, creativity, and ingenuity of our team we were able to meet our goals. 

Thinking Outside The Box To Help The Community

So we were able to hit our goals and build these gardens for people for food security in 30, 60, or 90 days, but at that moment people were wondering, “What about tonight? What do I do tonight?” People were needing assistance quicker than our gardens could provide so for the first time as an organization, we started to ask what does emergency food aid look like? How can we play a role in this need and do we play a role at all? We had some conversations about this and at the same time, some farmer partners reached out to us and told us that they had just lost 90-100% of their restaurant contracts because restaurants were closed. They had acres of vegetables ready to be sold but had nowhere to sell them. So we were really positioned equally between these two groups: the farmers that needed to sell their crops to continue farming and people who needed food assistance. We started building partnerships and had a group of individuals reach out to use who crowd-sourced some funds. We started buying CSA shares from the farmers to uplift them and get them some income. But then the produce —  amazing, locally-grown food —  went back to local families who needed the support at the time.

Over the course of 2020 we handed out over 800 CSA boxes to families in our programs. Listen, food security in communities of color has always been an issue. It’s not that the pandemic created this situation, but it really highlighted and focused on the fact that food insecurity, in particular of people of color and low-income communities, has been a big issue for  a long time. So, it’s something we’ve continued and thought about how we can continue to uplift and support the food system that we want to succeed right now and survive the pandemic, but also prosper post-pandemic. 

We started applying for grants to buy 100 CSA shares from three different farmers of color to then support their business but also get that food directly into the community. And we did that through a model of our community organizers. And I would say that has been one of the really big silver linings to this entire pandemic is when we decentralized our office six years ago with that home gardeners program, we didn't realize that there was a pandemic coming, but that has been really a saving part to our home gardens program in the sense that they were already embedded in their communities. They were the lead person in those communities and they basically then started requesting from the home gardens leadership team what they needed for their specific community. 

Each year we would do a plant distribution day where in normal years 500-600 people would show up and select plant starts that they wanted to take home for their gardens. But we couldn’t do that, right? So we asked, how do we utilize our decentralized model? The community organizer in each neighborhood would basically get orders from all of the gardeners that they were supporting and then we held micro plant distribution days in each of the neighborhoods of the city. To put into context the numbers: on the normal, non-pandemic plant distribution day we would hand out about 4,000 plant starts. Now with our decentralized micro plant distribution days in 2020, we handed out over 8,000 plants and this year, 2021, we’ve handed out over 10,000 plants. We’ve almost tripled the amount of plants and engagement that we’ve done in this new model. 

Looking To The Post-Pandemic Future Of Growing Gardens

There are a lot of things we’ve learned as an organization during the pandemic and a lot of things we’ve had to do differently to respond and really meet communities where they’re at. So some of these things we will continue to do and some programs might become a hybrid model. We can have a central gathering point for people who want that, while also giving people options at the same time. It really helps with accessibility to have options because some folks couldn’t make it to the full plant distribution meet-up day for lots of different reasons. Now we’re prepared to help with access to get plants delivered directly to someone's home if they need it. 

On Growing Gardens’ Partnership With Thriving Design 

We’re really excited about working with Thriving Design because it’s building a relationship and a definite long-term partnership. Specifically we’ve been able to work with Thriving Design for the Chef In Your Garden dinners where we’re looking at the idea of how to engage with a different part of our food system; engaging with chefs and restaurants, small business and small food systems. It’s been a great way to connect with other businesses around us who care about the food system and the community and help support each other. This is one of the things I’m excited about post-pandemic; solidifying these partnerships for post-pandemic work. And I think Morgan [co-owner of Thriving Design] really understands the work that we’re doing and we understand the work that she’s doing. It's not only a direct sponsorship of Growing Gardens, but it’s walking the walk and talking the talk together. For example, I told Morgan about a few of the black farmers we’ve been working with and she sent them C-BITEs to help with trellising and other things. And that’s something that’s really important to both of us. 

Celebrating Growing Gardens’ 25th Anniversary

Growing Gardens is celebrating our 25th anniversary this year; so that’s a big one for us as an organization. We’ve been really thinking about, what have we been doing these last 25 years? What are we doing currently? Where are we going and what do we want to do moving forward with our partnerships and our work?

We’re holding a celebration on June 26th  for our 25th anniversary; it’s going to be a virtual community brunch. So anybody across the country can attend, but we're going to be bringing in national food system leaders to present on what’s happening right now in the food system and what needs to happen for it to be successful for everyone. You can hear about black-led organizations (Black Food Fund), Vu Le (Community Centric Fundraising) and initiatives from our Growing Gardens staff and Board members who are food system leaders as well. So it’s a great opportunity for folks to get engaged with our organization — it’s going to be jam-packed with a lot of information. You can purchase a ticket on our website or become a monthly donor to be involved. Also, if you can’t afford a ticket, you can also attend for free. 

Learn more and purchase tickets on their website. 

How To Get Involved Or Help With Growing Gardens 

Besides attending our 25th anniversary brunch, other ways to get engaged with us are to become a perennial donor — that’s a monthly donor at any level ($5 or $10) that really sustains our work and gives us the opportunity and flexibility to pivot our work and take on new opportunities as they arise. So that’s a huge support for us. 

Also, you can sign up for our newsletter to read and hear more about our organization. 

You can learn more about Growing Gardens on their website or by following them on Instagram at @GrowingGardensPDX


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